back to front: doomed youth?


HAVING ALLOWED Thatcher to stay in power for over a decade, we are well on the way to committing the same mistake with this lot. Whatever we thought we were electing in 1997, no one could have any doubts at the next election. We now have a government committed to the basics of Thatcherism – subservience to market forces, to the US, and to the EU.

In policy terms, we see the results everywhere. In the hamfisted attempts to introduce top-up fees for students. And in the extraordinary announcement by Jack Straw in December that anyone from the new European Union countries to the east can straightaway come and work in Britain – somehow, he argues, we have a labour shortage, this in a country with millions of people unemployed.

This government, though, has made a political choice: instead of investing in our own young people and encouraging them to stay in education, it scours the world for people who will come to Britain and undercut wages here.

We have said it before, but it bears saying again: importing skilled labour from abroad is imperialist asset-stripping on a grand scale, robbing the exporting countries of the basis of their own future. If it is true that Britain has a skills shortage, is it less of one than Poland or India, Latvia or Zambia?

And all the while, our industrial base is disappearing, leaving whole communities without work and sending the trade deficit to record highs.

Where does all this lead? A study from the Rowntree Foundation in December reveals the desperate results of the first wave of Thatcherism. It reports that young people born during the 1970s and reaching maturity during the Thatcher era are twice as prone to depressive illness as those born 12 years earlier. The report should be read by all workers who voted for Thatcher, and those who tolerated her government, as a lesson on what their generation visited on their own children.

The earlier generation, raised in the 60s, tended to move into jobs or apprenticeships at 16, if they did not remain in education, with a clear sense of what their work patterns were likely to be. By 1986, the youth labour market had collapsed, with official unemployment soaring to 4 million. Young people not in education faced unemployment, casual jobs or the dreaded YTS, which was simply a device for artificially reducing the unemployment figures.

During this time the traditional apprenticeship system was virtually destroyed. The four- or five-year induction into the skills of a trade, which was also a transition into the adult world of work, controlled by and with standards defined by the organised working class through its trade unions, became a thing of the past. The new-style introduction into adulthood was provided by YTS, unemployment and homelessness for many 16 and 17-year-olds no longer eligible to draw dole.

The sight of young people begging on the streets and living in doorways became common in British cities. Today we hardly notice them. We have allowed all this to happen, and now our task is to turn it around. There is no alternative: Rebuild Britain!